Johns Hopkins Medicine scientists have developed a new imaging technology that will help surgeons more effectively and safely remove brain tumours.
Built around optical coherence tomography (OCT), the technology provides surgeons with a colour-coded map of a patient's brain, displaying which areas are cancer and are non-cancer.
Developed in the early 1990s for retina imaging, OCT operates on the same echolocation principle used by bats and ultrasound scanners, but yields a higher-resolution image compared to the latter, as it uses light rather than sound waves.
Following three years of research, the Johns Hopkins team found the characteristic OCT 'signature' of brain cancer, and devised a computer algorithm to process OCT data and instantaneously generate a colour-coded map with cancer in red and healthy tissue in green.
Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering professor Xingde Li said: "We envision that the OCT would be aimed at the area being operated on, and the surgeon could look at a screen to get a continuously updated picture of where the cancer is and isn't."
The system has been tested on fresh human brain tissue removed during surgeries, as well as in surgeries to remove brain tumours from mice. It is expected to undergo clinical trials in patients in the next few months.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine neurosurgery, neuroscience and oncology professor Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa said: "As a neurosurgeon, I'm in agony when I'm taking out a tumour.
"If I take out too little, the cancer could come back; too much, and the patient can be permanently disabled.
"We think optical coherence tomography has strong potential for helping surgeons know exactly where to cut."
According to Johns Hopkins, an OCT-based system would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, while ultrasound and MRI scanners cost several millions of dollars each, and need an extra hour of operating room time to obtain a single image.
The team is believed to be working on adapting the system to detect cancers in other parts of the body, and also combine it with a different imaging technique that would detect blood vessels to help surgeons avoid cutting them.
Image: A depiction of a new technique using OCT that could help surgeons differentiate a human brain tumour from surrounding non cancerous tissue. Photo: courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Health System.